NORMAN, Okla. — Udoka Azubuike missed the free throws. Bill Self shouldered the blame.
This was the scene at the wild finish and in the immediate aftermath of the No. 5-ranked Kansas basketball team’s 85-80 defeat Tuesday night at No. 12 Oklahoma, a loss which saw the Jayhawks’ 7-foot sophomore center miss six consecutive free-throw attempts in the game’s final four minutes.
Self opted to stick with Azubuike, a 40-percent free-throw shooter. It was a decision the Hall of Fame coach later said was the wrong move in terms of winning now, but came with good intentions.
“It was a bad decision. It’s on me for this game. If I had to do it all over again, knowing what I know now, I may have done it differently,” Self said. “But I’ve never believed that you take out one of your best players, because you show ’em you don’t have confidence in ’em.”
Oklahoma coach and Silver Lake native Lon Kruger deployed the “Poke-a-Doke” strategy with 3:37 to play and the Sooners (15-4, 5-3) down two. Azubuike proceeded to miss the front end of a pair of one-and-ones and four free throws with the Jayhawks (16-4, 6-2) in the double bonus, and KU came away with points on only one of its final nine possessions.
Azubuike finished 1 for 8 from the stripe.
“You know, it was obviously the wrong thing to do to win this game,” Self said.
“Hopefully it doesn’t hurt him moving forward. I’ve always been a big believer that you send a bad message to a guy that you don’t have confidence in him, especially when you know he’s going to have to play every big minute late in the season against good competition.”
Christian James’ go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:09 left put the Sooners up for good, and Brad Manek’s wide-open trey with 25 seconds remaining iced the contest, keeping KU from a potential game-tying or game-winning attempt. Svi Mykhailiuk and Devonte’ Graham didn’t switch on a ball screen late, an act Self called a “mental mistake” from Graham spurred by the senior wanting to defend superstar freshman guard Trae Young (26 points, nine assists).
“You get hung up,” Self said, “and this happens a lot of times in sports: You know what you’re supposed to do, but you think you can guard Trae better than the guy you’re switching with, and so you stay and you don’t react well to it because your competitive juices say, ‘Yeah, I want him right now.’ ”
Mykhailiuk had a team-high 24 points for the Jayhawks, who blew a 10-point second-half lead after they themselves overcame a 10-point first-half deficit. Young’s game-high point total was secured on an efficient 7-for-9 shooting performance from the field and a 10-for-12 effort from the free-throw line.
“I never felt like we had it won, but I did feel like it’s a lot easier playing with the lead in those situations, yeah,” Self said. “We just didn’t do it.”
Back to Azubuike, who Self said was “pretty upset” in the postgame locker room. When Kruger’s “Poke-a-Doke” strategy became apparent, Self asked his 7-footer if he wanted to remain in the game, and Azubuike answered with confidence — “He said, ‘Oh yeah,’ ” Self recalled.
The duo had another conversation after the game.
“You’re going to be in this situation again,” Self told Azubuike. “Let’s work on it. Let’s figure it out.”
Therein lies the biggest storyline stemming from this defeat, which could prove to be much more than a single-game stumble.
How will the Jayhawks — who almost lost their last game against Baylor when Azubuike missed a pair of free-throw attempts in the final minute — approach this same scenario should it present itself again in the future?
“I don’t know. I don’t know,” Self admitted. “There’s a situation, at least the way I see it — and I’m not saying I’m 100 percent right on it — that this is a tie game and it’s an NCAA Tournament game. You’re not going to have your best players on the floor? I’d have to wait and see on the situation.”
Much of it will depend on Azubuike’s response.
It’s too late in the season for Azubuike to change his free-throw shooting form, Self said. The coach hopes by leaving the sophomore in he didn’t give his player the “yips” at the line, a situation he compared to that of Rick Ankiel, a former St. Louis Cardinals pitcher whose control unraveled after throwing five wild pitches in a single playoff game.
Ankiel converted to the outfield shortly thereafter.
“Who knows if this will end up being something positive down the road, because maybe he’ll focus and concentrate and work on it harder because he didn’t like how this felt? Who knows,” Self said. “Maybe if he works on it harder and gets better at it and when he’s in a pressure situation again, which he will be, maybe he’ll shoot a higher percentage. I don’t know.
“But to win one game, to win one game, I certainly didn’t do our team any favors. But over the course of time, that remains to be seen.”